'Roger Isn't Who I Am': An Interview With John Slattery of 'Mad Men'

By John Meroney

The actor, who directed this week's episode of the Emmy-winning show, on what it's like to play Roger Sterling

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AMC

Actor John Slattery is directing this Sunday night's installment of Mad Men. As regular viewers of the series know, Slattery plays the irrepressible advertising executive Roger Sterling. Roger is a World War II Navy veteran, husband, father, and founding partner of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency. He's a man who loves the chase. "Sometimes it doesn't work out," Roger says in season two. "Those are the stakes. But when it does work out, it's like having that first cigarette. Your head gets all dizzy, your heart pounds, your knees go weak. Remember that?" After watching Roger over the past four seasons, one gets the sense that he may have secretly helped Hugh M. Hefner write the Playboy Philosophy.

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Slattery is marred to actress Talia Balsam, who plays his now ex-wife, Mona, on the series. He lives in Manhattan—but as he'll tell you, that's where the similarities to Roger Sterling end.

This is Slattery's first time directing since he got behind the camera to helm the "Blowing Smoke" episode from last season—that's the one where Don Draper breaks ranks with Big Tobacco, signaling a deeply personal transition as well. I caught up with Slattery on the phone in New York where he told me that Sunday's episode, entitled "Signal 30," is equally as monumental in the life of Mad Men.

 

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Jon Hamm, who plays your business partner, Don Draper, directed an episode that aired two weeks ago. Does the competition between the characters of Don and Roger now extend to the making of the series as well?

Not really. I thought Jon's show was well done, and I'm thrilled for him. We direct these episodes, turn them in, and Matt Weiner, our executive producer and creator, makes the edits. Mad Men is Matt's show.

So you haven't seen the final cut of your episode?

No. I just have my director's cut. You learn pretty quickly if you fall in love with your edit, you're bound to be heartbroken because it will all be re-cut.

Isn't directing a TV show that you're acting in an exercise in vanity?

Well, in my situation, having been in every episode, I feel like I know the show better than a director off the street. A full-time director probably is better than I am, but I know what went into making Mad Men. That plays out to my advantage.

When actors direct, they're often very economical. Clint Eastwood gets the take and moves on. David Fincher, on the other hand, reportedly films dozens of takes of a scene.

I'm somewhere in between. I like to try the scene over and over, but given the confines of television, I don't have that option. We have eight days to shoot an episode. I acted for Clint in the movie Flags of Our Fathers and he does one take because he thinks the scene is better before the actors begin to make choices that can deaden the life of the scene. On Mad Men, I have a bit of an advantage because I know who gets better as they repeat a scene and who's best at the beginning.

 

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What kind of leading man did you imagine yourself to be?

When I was coming up, everybody wanted to be Tom Hanks. There was always Robert De Niro and Al Pacino—they were the heavily dramatic stuff. I always had a foot in both camps. The hardest thing was to resist the advice to be like someone else. It took me a while to figure that out.

What would the 20-year-old John Slattery have thought of playing the Roger Sterling character?

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Well, if anyone would have told me this is what it was going to be like, I suppose I would have been happy. But the path you end up on means that you have to close a lot of doors, too.

Playing Roger has to be a blessing and a curse. You're on a series that's part of the national conversation, but viewers and moviegoers may never trust you on screen again.

That's right. People can't get a certain something out of their heads when they see that person. I guess I feel like I'm below the radar enough to move around and do other things.

You have a son who's 12. What do you want him to understand when he looks at this character?

He gets the character. He understands Mad Men isn't a documentary. Roger isn't who I am. This is my job.

Because Roger Sterling is a pretty untrustworthy guy, you know.

You've said that twice, and I don't know whether I agree. Roger doesn't go around stabbing people in the back. He doesn't go against his word. Once Roger says something, that's pretty much what he does.

He wasn't trustworthy as a husband when he was married to Mona.

Neither was Don when he was married to Betty. But Don's trustworthy as far as his relationship with Peggy goes. Every character on Mad Men has their own code of ethics. The way Roger is about certain things—his war experience, his affection toward Joan—is ironclad.

In this season's debut, Roger says, "The only thing worse than not getting what you want is someone else getting it," after he watches Don's wife, Megan, seductively perform a song for Don's birthday. Based on that remark, when Megan overhears Harry Crane expressing what he'd like to do to her sexually, we can pretty much assume that's what Roger wants to do to Megan as well.

The difference between Harry and Roger is that Roger knows the consequences of what he's saying and says it anyway. Harry just puts his foot in his mouth.

It seems as though Roger gets away with everything that JFK got away with and enjoys it. Don also gets away with everything that JFK got away with—but he suffers for it.

I think all the characters suffer the consequences of their choices. Roger's marriage to Jane was impulsive, and it isn't necessarily a match made in heaven. He may be in love with Joan, but he wasn't able to make the choice to marry her. Look, Roger Sterling isn't enjoying himself. Just watch the last couple of episodes.

 

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In your experience, do women find Don Draper or Roger Sterling more appealing?

The one thing I hear people say is that they love a certain character but they think he's a shit. People love Draper—and when he gets away with things. They love Pete Campbell, but they think he's conniving. They love Joan, but they consider her promiscuous. They love Betty, but she's a lousy mother. Viewers can hate a character and at the same time can't take their eyes off of him. Sometimes you'll hear executives say, The character's not likeable enough. Well, this thing of "likeability" is TV bullshit. If you make a character likeable enough, no one will watch him.

Roger once commented that the younger generation basically misunderstands alcohol. They drink for all the wrong reasons. Roger says that his generation drinks because it's good. "It feels better than unbuttoning your collar. We deserve it," he says. "We drink because it's what we do." Will we ever get to a point where we'll see Roger Sterling stand up at a meeting and say, "My name is Roger and I'm an alcoholic"?

I suppose he would if his alcoholism affected his job performance. Look at the Freddy Rumsen character. He was very good at his job in the ad agency but they sent him off to dry out. That's because he fell asleep before a meeting and wet his pants. If Freddy had said, "I'll be right back—I'm going to get a newspaper," and he'd taken a cab home, slept it off, made up an excuse, and hadn't embarrassed himself in the office, then maybe he'd still have a job. Roger has to control himself enough to survive in a very competitive workplace.

When you were first considering whether to sign on to act on Mad Men, what did you think about the character of Roger Sterling?

I was promised this would be a great part. I took that on faith.

It turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

You just said it. Everyone on Mad Men knows that—and we're aware it isn't going to be much longer. We appreciate the ride.

What do you think about playing a character who's become a fantasy figure for married men who consider themselves trapped in monogamy?

There's this great vicarious quality to the entire series, not just Roger. On Mad Men, people can be more obvious in their intentions without fear of litigation every time they put their hand on another person or say what's on their mind. Roger is particularly keen about expressing his opinion, especially in moments where he sees an opportunity and senses no one else is going to say what's on everybody's mind. I wish I could be as clever as he is.

What's the most challenging thing about playing him?

Making sure I don't play scenes in a knee-jerk fashion. Characters can become boring. That's what's tricky about television. It goes on and on—you're playing this same character for five seasons and it gets easy to fall into just walking on the set and assuming you know how to play a scene. I don't want to make those assumptions. I try to investigate each scene and play it for what it's worth.

Mad Men is of course about men and women working in New York advertising. But in your view, what's the series really about?

I think it's primarily Don Draper's story as he moves through a particularly changeable time in his life and the country's.

Imagine if Mad Men had originally been pitched with Roger Sterling as the star of the series.

Yeah. (long pause) Yeah. (long pause) Or with Peggy as the star. (long pause) These are all complicated, fully drawn characters. This season, some of the things that we've assumed about these people are proven wrong.

What do you consider to be the quintessential Roger Sterling moment?

The scene where Don and Roger are eating oysters and drinking martinis. We filmed that at Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood.

"Don't let me see the bottom of this glass," he instructs the waiter.

That scene captures Roger's devil-may-care attitude.

You've worked with some prominent television show runners—Marc Cherry on Desperate Housewives and now Matt Weiner on Mad Men. What's the big difference about working on a show that Weiner runs?

He has a specific vision of this world he created. There are only a handful of people who can take that vision and execute it. The ability to translate the images in his head onto paper and then onto film, and to do it on a consistently high level for five years—that's what makes this show remarkable.

What do you want viewers to take away from the "Signal 30" episode?

I was given a script that's a little gem. For eight days, it was mine to work with. They trusted me with it. I made choices and interpretations. The script was one of the best I've read—and I'm hopeful it turns out as well.

I'm wondering who takes longer to get ready in the morning—you or Roger Sterling.

Oh, definitely Roger. He's got cufflinks.

Excerpts from Mad Men appear courtesy of AMC.

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